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Spotlight on Jessica Creery: PhD candidate studying memory, sleep, and meditation

Modified: February 16, 2018

Jessica Creery is a PhD candidate studying memory, sleep, and meditation in Dr. Ken Paller’s Cognitive Neuroscience lab. She graduated from Tulane University with a BS in Psychology and a BA in Cognitive Science.  

What were you doing before you arrived at Northwestern?

I went to Tulane University for undergrad and double majored in psychology and cognitive studies, and I minored in philosophy. Initially, I majored in philosophy, as I was really intrigued by what it felt like to be conscious and wanted a deeper understanding of what it was to be a human. I ended up mostly reading cognitive neuroscience papers and using them as justification for my philosophical arguments. Luckily, I had a professor who helped me realize that I was actually interested in neuroscience and recommended that I try out working in a lab after college to see if it was for me.

So, before attending graduate school, I was a research technician at Northwestern working on a Mindfulness Intervention for patients with early stages of cognitive decline (such as Alzheimer’s disease) and their caregivers.

What influenced you to pursue a graduate degree?

As a first-generation college student, I did not initially consider a graduate degree. Honestly, I thought I might work full-time as a lab technician forever if I enjoyed it. Then, I audited several graduate neuroscience courses as a research technician, and I started having my own ideas for studies. From there, I began working towards my own theories in the field.

This gave me a better understanding of graduate education and why one might spend time getting an advanced degree. From there, it was a natural transition into a graduate program. 

Tell us about your research in non-specialist terms.

I’m interested in how memories are processed in the brain, and what that means for how existing representations persist or are modified. To study this, I research the neural changes that occur during a period of sleep between when memories are initially acquired and when they are retrieved. I observe the brain during sleep, because during this time, our brain waves are distinctly different in ways that would support the long-distance neural communication required for memory stabilization.

For the past two years, I’ve been working with patients who undergo monitoring for the onset of epileptic activity, which gives us the unique opportunity to measure brain activity via electrodes inside the brain called intracranial electroencephalography (iEEG). I use this technique to find evidence of memory replay inside the brain during sleep and to relate that activity to behavioral evidence of memory stabilization. 

What is a rewarding aspect of your research?

Discovery. It is pretty remarkable that with every study we are trying to uncover something new.

What is a challenging aspect of your research?

Balance. It is difficult to balance designing, programing, analyzing, and writing up findings on multiple studies while applying for grants, teaching, and applying for the next position.

Describe a typical research day. What do you do in the lab each day to advance your research? What might an outside observer perceive from watching your routine?

I wish I could tell you what a typical day looked like, but I don’t think I’ve ever had one. Working with patients makes it impossible for me to have a typical schedule, especially when I work with patients overnight in the hospital. When we have a patient, I take a couple of days to get to know them and to talk to their doctors before testing. They study object-locations several hours before bedtime, and then I observe their EEG to determine when they are in deep sleep and when they wake up. From there, I test them on the object-locations.

On days when I’m not testing patients, I spend most of the day at my computer in lab. Mostly, I program analysis scripts for EEG or behavioral data, catch up on new findings and techniques, or work on experimental design and programming of the experiment. I am regularly working on manuscripts, fellowship applications, posters for conferences, or research talks. Most days I have meetings with research assistants and collaborators or a talk to attend. Throughout it all, I’m listening to music.

An outside observer might perceive chaos.

What’s one thing you’re passionate about beyond your research?

Over the last few years, I have been compelled to get involved and make a difference in society. Currently, I’m a community organizer with Reclaim Chicago and The People’s Lobby. I chair the Fair Elections task force to pass an ordinance for the City of Chicago that would create a small-donor matching program for city elections. To do this, we work with city council members and research donations to communicate findings through outreach to the community. In other cities that have passed similar ordinances, there has been an immediate increase in representation of diverse communities on city council. This work informs my research, and vice versa.

If you won the Powerball jackpot (approx. $440 million), would you still do your research? If not, what would you do after receiving your money? If yes, really?! Why?

I may be the wrong person to answer that question, as I think it is immoral for any one person to have that much money. However, I do fantasize about a world in which all of my needs, along with everyone else’s on the planet, were taken care of (meaning guaranteed healthcare, food, housing, and education without debt). In this world, I would definitely still do research, and I think many people would. People are hungry to know more about their own brains. I often have conversations with individuals who know more than I do about an aspect of cognition that I don’t study (e.g. how optical illusions, social interactions, or music are processed in our brains), simply because they spent their free time reading about it.

The incredible pressure to publish in order to survive in academia is driven by the need for some metric to award a limited number of positions and grants. If we lived in a world where researchers didn’t have to rely on many publishable findings to stay employed, I believe research would be of both higher quality and greater substance.